Why I’m Against Genetically Modified Foods

OR: Stop Defending GMOs Because You Love Science.

Recently I’ve noticed a lot of people frowning upon GM dissent, generally claiming that the science is sound and the food is not dangerous. However, the issues are significantly more complex, and saying GMOs are okay because they are perfectly safe to eat could be logically compared to saying that food made by slaves from stolen goods is okay simply because it is safe to eat; unfortunately, one merit does not cancel out other problems, regardless of how much we may love science.

A recent article I read on this subject criticized GM critics for being against science, while at the same time making large claims without citations, turning the argument into a straw man, and in general supporting itself with one man’s opinion. Excuse me, who is being unscientific here? Someone has to attempt to be rational, so I’ll give it my best shot. Keep in mind that what I’m not trying to say is that GMOs are inherently or theoretically bad; I’m proposing that the mainstream, industrial uses of them are actively harmful, and that supporting these in the supermarket contributes to this harm. Okay, here are a few of the main problems with GMOs at large scale as practiced today:

  1. A lack of genetic diversity is fragile and dangerous. All species need genetic diversity to survive, so when a disease or pest comes along, ideally some are naturally resistant and can repopulate. This isn’t just a theoretical “nice to have” for our crops. Lack of diversity is why the fruit we all know as a banana today is the inferior Cavendish variety, instead of what our grandparents knew as a tastier and less bruise-prone banana, the once-predominant “Gros Michel.” We lost that superior banana strain to Panama Disease, because all the plants were genetically identical and thus all prone to the disease. (Not surprisingly, a new strain of Panama Disease is now threatening the also genetically identical Cavendish.) On the other hand, genetic diversity is why we still have wine despite Phylloxera; not all vines were susceptible to the pest, and by their genetic grace, to this day vines are generally grafted onto rootstock of resistant varieties that allow them to survive. What’s going to happen when the next disease or pest hits a global GM staple? I chose this point first as I think it is a great example of why we need to consider not just the direct but also the indirect and long-term consequences of GMOs.
  2. The modified traits are anti-consumer. The modifications that I’ve read about are generally for improved yield or stronger crops, which might be helpful to a farmer, but isn’t a reason for me to be excited about it in a supermarket. This is especially true as these traits often come at the cost of pro-consumer traits: “Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly,” reported Davis, “but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.” As that article points out, the vitamin and mineral levels in industrially produced food have been dropping significantly due to the selection pressures of industrial agriculture. Another troubling example is engineering herbicide / pesticide tolerance into plants so that farmers can heavily spray their plants. This causes pesticide poisoning and birth defects in workers and their children, and contributes to coastal dead zones.
  3. The beneficial traits don’t even beat small-scale, organic farming. While it may seem that increased yields and stronger crops is great for feeding the starving people of the world, we should consider a few things. First, is this even true? Well, “data compiled by the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) shows that…in every single category, organic farming systems proved to be far more viable and sustainable than any conventional or GM system. Initiated back in 1981, Rodale’s FST is the longest running, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical agriculture that has ever been conducted in the US.” In other words, just because GM crops can improve the yield of industrial crops, doesn’t mean there isn’t a more efficient way. Second, are farms sending any supposed increased yields to starving children in poor countries? Or are they using these advantages at industrial scale to lower prices and push family farms out of business?

All that, and I didn’t even have to touch on the evils of Monsanto, which simply can’t be ignored when they potentially control 98% of the US soybean market and 79% of the US corn market.

Primarily, I see the problems with GMOs existing at the industrial scale, which is precisely where the pro-GM campaigning is taking place in politics (see for example the dramatic campaign outspending for Prop 37 by industry). If there are scientists doing good things with GM that can address the genetic diversity problem, I don’t see anything wrong with that. However, it seems very irrational — and well, unscientific — to pretend that sound theoretical science in isolation is reason to ignore real-world negative consequences in practice. The question when buying a GM food in a grocery store should not be “is the science behind this food cool?” but “does this purchase and everything that entails make the world a better place?”

  • Martin Owens

    I disagree profoundly, you’ve used tricks and fallacies to sustain your point.

    1. This is a reason to be against diversity depletion, not GM. Straw-man argument. GM can help by transitioning important traits to more diverse cultivars, introduce new ways for seeds to be viable (in the case on bananas for example) and even merge back resistance from diverse cultivars into existing non-diverse ones.
    2. This is a reason to be against poor quality and poor nutrition in food, not GM. Staw-man argument. if the regulation existed, there is no reason to suppose food quality would have to suffer just because it’s GM.
    3. This is a reason to be pro-distribution of farming, not GM. False correlation.

    Your argument seems to be more against large argi-buisnesses that are poorly regulated producing nice looking but nutritionally poor foods. It really doesn’t matter if the crops are wild, human breeds or GM. What matters is all the _other_ stuff that goes on.

    Far more concerning is the ability for companies to make patented seeds, as if genes could be patented. Destroy that bullshit and GM research would more likely move towards in-demand concerns from consumers. Then kill the whole sterile seeds bullshit, removing the means of production from farmers is criminal. just because the crime was committed with GM, doesn’t make GM science a problem. Just rotten government and lack of regulation.

    • mrooney

      “Your argument seems to be more against large argi-buisnesses that are poorly regulated producing nice looking but nutritionally poor foods. It really doesn’t matter if the crops are wild, human breeds or GM. What matters is all the _other_ stuff that goes on.”

      Thanks for bringing this up, because it is the point I’m trying to make. I agree and feel I was honest about this when I said if scientists are doing good things with GM, that’s great. However, to support something with your money which in theory is useful but in practice is used mainly for harm, is to monetarily support that harm. I agree with all your points, #1, #2, and #3, but believe that GM is in practice overwhelmingly used with the effect of less genetic diversity, decreased nutrition, and decreased distribution of farming. Hence, GM in practice is hurting, not helping, and I don’t want to support it in the supermarket.

      • dmaurolizer

        To your last point: I don’t know that it contributes to less genetic diversity, decreased nutrition, and decreased distribution as I’m fairly undereducated on these points. But in fairness, the example you point to in point 2 is not very convincing (I should read the findings of the Davis study to hear straight from the horse’s mouth I suppose), and this link (http://www.gmo-journal.com/2011/06/17/loss-of-biodiversity-and-genetically-modified-crops/) starts with talking about the loss of bio-diversity going back to 1900 and then talks about why GMOs might affect bio-diversity, but without direct evidence.

        Maybe I’m reading this stuff wrong, but I’m just not necessarily seeing a direct link. I am being kind of lazy and didn’t clink on all your links though. But I could totally get behind what you’re saying with more direct evidence. What I’m asking to see is something that shows a spike in the loss of bio-diversity and a large dip in the nutritional value of food correlating to the increased use in GMOs, and I don’t ask that rhetorically.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002487259611 Ethan Anderson

    I have only one problem that’s actually inherent to genetically modified foods; these points are not, as Martin Owens points out. I’m concerned because mRNA from consumed food has been shown to alter gene expression in the organisms that consume that food. –but that just means this altered gene expression must be well-tested, and GMO foods must be labeled. There could be mRNA in food that only affects people with particular gene variants, one never knows. Needs more study.

  • dmaurolizer

    I’ve got a couple of questions to each point:

    1) Why would GM crops inherently lead to less diversity? Your first example of a major strain lost because of a lack of diversity was a natural one, and only proves that it is something to worry about regardless of GMOs.

    2) The link in here I couldn’t quite follow. The author seems to be blaming farming practices that lead to the stripping of soil of its nutrients, while citing a study that suggests GMOs are to blame. Then a “similar study” is cited which shows a drop from 1930 to 1980, before GMOs were seeing major use, right? But either way, my main thought is: rather than attacking GMOs, shouldn’t you be demanding of the companies that they produce more consumer friendly strains? They could very well have them but not be using them because the others are better in market.

    3) Good point. Do we have any small-scale organic farms using GMOs to compare against?

    It seems like the attacks against GMOs are proxy attacks against companies that have shitty practices. As you said, your problem exists at the industrial scale. Behind each of your points is an industry practice to blame that is not necessarily bound to GMOs.

    I think that if GMOs were not patentable or if it were cheap and easy enough for anyone to make a viable strain, this discussion would be about industry evils and not GMOs.

    • mrooney

      Thanks Dave! I don’t know if this comment (http://mikerooney.rowk.com/2013/01/21/why-im-against-genetically-modified-foods/#comment-773925095) helps. For #1, the seeds all genetically identical, AFAIK, so as global GM use of identical seeds increases, genetic diversity thus decreases and the food supply becomes more vulnerable.

      Again, I agree with #2. I’m demanding companies produce more consumer friendly strains by not supporting the current consumer-unfriendly strains in the supermarket. Anyone who happily buys them (not that you can really know without buying organic due to lack of labeling) is doing the opposite, and monetarily supporting the industries lobbying strongly against the regulation that GM supporters generally admit they think would be useful in the first place! Pretty ironic, I think.

      Your question on #3 is an interesting one, though technically impossible as organic farming prohibits the use of GMOs. Again, I’m using GM to mean modern, industrial-scale traits; an otherwise-organic-practicing farmer who genetically modified tomatoes to be polka-dotted wouldn’t inherently expect any yield difference because of that trait.

      Again, I agree that, with the exception of #1, my main concerns are indirect. Maybe I need to clarify / bolster my argument that to say you are against companies like Monsanto and the lack of regulations, and then support them, is to support what they are doing and fund their lobbying to continue doing it. I think a lot of the pro-GM arguments are idealistic and don’t represent what is actually happening and ignore the real-world consequences of our actions (points #1-#3).

      • dmaurolizer

        I definitely agree with you that the Pro-GM arguments are idealistic, perhaps even too much so, but perhaps that’s because this is so abstracted in its impact to my daily life that I can’t help but be idealistic about it?

        What if the push was for identifying and labeling the various strains, GMO or not, and requiring identification as such. Is that not a viable solution? That seems like it would better solve the problem.

        • mrooney

          That push happened and it failed: http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/California_Proposition_37,_Mandatory_Labeling_of_Genetically_Engineered_Food_(2012). Prop 37 was polling well for passing, but the industry (again, supported by our purchases) dramatically outspent Prop 37 supporters and ran lots of ads to defeat it: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/05/news/la-dd-food-fyi-prop-37-down-to-the-wire-20121105

          • dmaurolizer

            For what it’s worth I never buy vegetables. :)

          • mrooney

            It has little to do with fresh produce; the typical Western diet is actually more affected by this. For example, look at the processed foods companies that spent millions to fight Prop 37: Pepsi, Coke, Kraft, Nestle, General Mills, Kellogg [1]. These aren’t produce companies, but they use lots of corn and soy; they don’t want to label their sodas (corn syrup), corn chips, and other processed foods as being genetically modified.

            In general, any purchases containing corn and/or soy, which is quite a few things, is possibly if not likely GM. “Currently, up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as are 91 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of cotton (cottonseed oil is often used in food products). It has been estimated that upwards of 70 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves–from soda to soup, crackers to condiments–contain genetically engineered ingredients.”[2]

            “High-fructose corn syrup sweetens everything from juice to toothpaste. Even the alcohol in beer is corn-based. Corn is in everything from frozen yogurt to ketchup, from mayonnaise and mustard to hot dogs and bologna, from salad dressings to vitamin pills. “Tell me what you eat,” said the French gastronomist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “and I will tell you what you are.” We’re corn.”[3]

            [1] http://www.kcet.org/news/ballotbrief/elections2012/propositions/prop-37-funding-genetically-engineered-food.html

            [2] http://truefoodnow.org/campaigns/genetically-engineered-foods/

            [3] http://michaelpollan.com/reviews/you-are-what-you-eat/

          • http://twitter.com/chadaustin Chad Austin

            Prop 37 was also a bullshit law with too man exemptions and a very screwed up liability system.

          • mrooney

            Care to share any specific reasons or cite anything? I’ve read a few anti-Prop 37 articles but none seemed to cite anything with their claims and simply made generic whines like “it will hurt (industry/farmers/America)”. I’m sure it isn’t perfect but is it worse than the complete lack of labeling and accountability we have now?

            The claim that we don’t need it because we have the “Organic” label makes no sense; how does that help me understand if Pepsi or Oreos are GM when they don’t make organic versions? You could buy niche organic sodas or cookies AT significant expense and IF you have access to a decent health food store, but for the average consumer with access to a standard grocery store, neither of those help.

  • mrooney

    I think all three recent comments are correctly pointing out that I’m not arguing against the theory of GM, but the practice. I added this sentence before my arguments, so let me know if you think it clarifies my stance: “Keep in mind that what I’m not trying to say is that GMOs are inherently or theoretically bad; I’m proposing that the mainstream, industrial uses of them are actively harmful, and that supporting these in the supermarket contributes to this harm.”

    • http://twitter.com/chadaustin Chad Austin

      Thanks for the clarification. I think arguing against GMO in general is weak, but arguing against current mainstream usage of GMO is valid.

  • Lauren Rooney

    I love this! If you haven’t yet, you should watch Food Inc.

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